Holiday

The Oddly Specific History of the Christmas Stocking

What’s behind the holiday tradition of hanging hosiery on the fireplace.

December  3, 2019
Photo by Ty Mecham

A few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I went out to dinner in our neighborhood. Once our drinks had arrived, I called the meeting to order. “Okay, we need to talk.” I said. “About Christmas decorations.”

“I’ll start,” I continued. “I was thinking we get a tree, a slightly wonky Charlie Brown tree, but bigger, and we can put it in the corner by the window. That way we can see the lights from outside! And we should get our very own stockings. I was thinking they could be dark green and white. Or one dark green and white, and one dark red and white? Maybe with some fur? Ooh! Maybe I can make them myself. Yes. With a Christmas movie on.”

“We can hang them on the brick wall in the living room! That kinda looks like a mantel,” Matt gamely added. This is just one of the many reasons I moved in with him.

While the Christmas tree is the traditional centerpiece of most homes, hanging up the stockings has always been my favorite parts of the holidays. As a kid, there was a scene in a movie I loved (Wee Sing’s The Best Christmas Ever!, and I’m not ashamed to admit it) in which the whole family, decked out in flannel pajamas, sings a song while procuring stockings from a basket and hanging them by the fireplace. I made my family replicate the scene, every year, for more years than I’d like to admit. One year I even made my parents rearrange the living room so we could get the stocking mise en place just right.

But it only recently occurred to me, getting ready to decorate our own apartment, that hanging stockings is actually a really strange tradition, even without my forced family reenactments. And that’s saying something because a lot of Christmas traditions are pretty weird (see: propping a dead tree in the living room for the month of December, leaving milk and cookies for a home intruder who will slither down your chimney while you sleep, and nonconsensual singing at your neighbors, also known as caroling).

So, why do we hang up what's essentially our hosiery at Christmastime? Picture, for example, how bizarre it would be if, after trimming the tree, we actually nailed some pantyhose up on the mantel. With sugar cookies in the oven and with a balsam candle burning beside me, I took to the internet to find out.

I quickly learned that the most pervasive origin story—steeped in myth and folklore—of the Christmas stocking, is actually sort of bleak. I landed, first, on an article on Smithsonian's website called “The Legend of the Christmas Stocking”—just what I was looking for. The story goes that, long, long ago, a widowed father was scraping by at Christmastime and he worried, in his ye olde timey way, that his three daughters’ meager backgrounds would prevent them from marrying. (They had nothing else to offer the world, of course.) St. Nicholas, the saintly precursor to Santa Claus—casually wandering around the town, and apparently not causing much of a stir—heard about the family and wanted to help. So one night, while the family was asleep, he dropped gold coins down the chimney, which found their way into the three girls’ freshly-washed stockings drying by the fire. Some versions of this story have St. Nicholas sliding down the chimney.

I won’t get into the symbolism of an old man filling women’s negligee with money to rescue them from their bleak futures. But it seems, sometime after the Three Sisters episode, people got wise to the idea that, if you hung up an old sock by the fire at night, you might wake up to free treats the next morning.

Soon St. Nicholas was known for filling stockings all over the place. Brittanica.com says that the benevolent saint was eventually introduced to the United States via the Dutch in New York City. I poked around in the New-York Historical Society archives, and bingo: I found a broadside from the Society’s first Festival of St. Nicholas celebrations in early December 1810 with a drawing of the saint himself, standing next to a traditional Dutch fireplace. And right next to him? A fireplace, hung with stockings. A few years later, in 1822, when Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” first appeared in the Troy, New York sentinel, “the stockings were hung by the chimney with care,” narrative was firmly slotted into Christmas, not St. Nicholas day, tradition.

It seems stockings fell out of favor for a hot second in the 1800s when Christmas trees were introduced in the US, because trees allowed more room for gifts than socks did. Thankfully, stockings made a comeback, bigger and better and designed especially to fit presents. A strongly worded 1883 article in the Times celebrates the return of stockings over the “rootless and lifeless corpse” of Christmas trees. “Even the empty stocking may be a thing of beauty,” it attests.

Soon filling stockings with tiny toys, treats, and candies, not coins, caught on. I also stumbled on a New York Times article from 1954 with the headline, “Gifts to Make the Christmas Stocking Plumper ... Available for $2 or Less,” which honestly sounds like it could be on Food52 today, with minor adjustments for inflation.

Two hundred and ten-some-odd-years after that early broadside image of St Nicholas, the sight of stockings hanging by a crackling fire still says Christmas. And while I do not need a dowry, thank you very much, I still love the ritual of hanging stockings (and filling them with the tiniest of gifts, which I always seem to prefer to the ones under the tree). I actually quite like the idea of hanging up an old wool sock, patches and all, but I think I’ll opt for something handmade this year, for our first stockings in our first home together. The current plan? Two hand-sewn canvas stockings with white wool detailing and nice ribbon loops. Here’s hoping I finish in time for Christmas Eve.

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Annie Quigley

Written by: Annie Quigley

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